Fanny Wilkinson – the horticulturist that time forgot

Our Visitor Experience Manager, Tessa, shines a light on the life of Fanny Wilkinson – a pioneering horticulturist who paved the way for women in the field, yet whose work has been mostly lost to obscurity.

When asked to write something for International Women’s Day, I thought I might wax lyrical about Gertrude Jekyll – the well-known twentieth century garden designer whose work inspired Maragret Nettlefold’s vision for the garden at Winterbourne. However, I thought I would do a bit of fresh research and, as I delved into internet searches of ‘early women in horticulture’, I stumbled across a name I had never heard before: Fanny Wilkinson.

It seems you must dig a bit deeper to find out about Fanny, who, despite being the first professional female landscape gardener in Britain, was not even mentioned in the Chelsea Flower Show’s 2023 celebration of ‘Women in Horticulture’.

Fanny was born in Manchester in 1855. The eldest of six siblings, her father was a doctor and her mother an American, who was his second wife. The family were quite wealthy, partly due to her father’s work (he was president of the British Medical Association), but also thanks to his inheritance from his first wife. This included the Middlethorpe Hall estate near York, which the family moved to in 1878.

Fanny Wilkinson Credit Kenneth Northover
Fanny Wilkinson. Credit Kenneth Northover

Fanny would therefore have had access to some rather wonderful open spaces; it’s no wonder then that she developed a liking for gardening. What is unusual is that, as a wealthy young lady, she decided to pursue it as a profession, in an age when it was very much still a man’s domain.

In 1881, Edward Milner founded the Crystal Palace School of Landscape Gardening and Practical Horticulture to help people train in horticulture without an apprenticeship. Fanny applied in 1882, was accepted, and became the school’s very first female pupil.

To enable her to join the two-year course, which was part practical and part theory, she moved from Middlethorpe to live in London. Here she found herself surrounded by likeminded women. Indeed, she lived next door but one to the famous suffragette Millicent Fawcett with whom she became great friends, and socialised with the pioneering Garrett sisters, who were forging the way for women in the professions of both medicine and interior design. Fanny was surrounded by the Bloomsbury society of strong independent ladies, and her determination to make a career in a man’s world would have found great support from those around her and their connections.

1878 had seen the passing of the Corporation of London (Open Spaces) Act, whereby the Corporation could acquire land within 25 miles of the city as open space for the recreation and enjoyment of the public. The Act prompted the formation of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (MPGA). When Fanny qualified, she couldn’t have been in a better place to get involved.

She secured the position of Honorary Landscape Gardener with the MPGA in 1884. During her time with them, Fanny designed 75 public gardens in the London area, from large parks such as Myatt’s Fields in Camberwell to churchyards such as St Luke’s Chelsea, Christchurch Spitalfields and Victoria Park Cemetery, renamed Meath Gardens. She led teams of 200 men and liked to choose her own workers. When she was brought in for private commissions to manage male gardeners already established in their role, she had ‘great bother with them’.

Myatts Field Park
Myatts Field Park

For her first two years with the MPGA, she was employed on a voluntary basis. In 1886 though, she requested to be paid for her work – a request that was granted. In an interview in 1890 she commented ‘I know my profession and charge accordingly, as all women should’.

By 1887, she had also become Kyrle Society’s landscape gardener. The Kyrle Society was founded by Miranda Hill, sister to Octavia Hill, who founded the National Trust. The Kyrle Society’s slogan was ‘bringing beauty to the poor’, with the purpose to ‘co-operate with the National Health Society in securing open-air spaces in poor neighbourhoods to be laid out as public gardens’. One such space was Vauxhall Park, where they supported Millicent Fawcett in a successful campaign to save it from developers. Fanny designed the newly formed park and was presented to the Prince of Wales on its opening in 1905. He apparently complimented her on her work.

Swanley Horticultural college

In 1902 Fanny became the first female principal of Swanley Horticultural College in Kent. She had been involved in the initial plans to enable the college to admit women in 1891, and the first professional female gardeners to be employed at Kew in 1896 were graduates. By 1898, female applicants had overtaken male. The college moved to admit women only and was renamed the Swanley Horticultural College for Women in 1902. Although Fanny remained principal until her retirement in 1916, she is not even mentioned in the history of Hadlow College – a descendant of Swanley. Once again, Fanny seems to slip through the net of recognition.

Fanny travelled extensively sharing her knowledge, even taking a trip to America in 1901 to study the colleges’ practices. Now well established in her profession, she exhibited landscape plans at the Glasgow Exhibition in 1888 and the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. She co-founded the Women’s Agricultural and Horticultural Union in 1899, which essentially recruited the Women’s Land Army of the First World War and continues as the Working Gardeners Association today. How then, can such a groundbreaking, influential woman almost be lost to obscurity?

Fanny in her later life

Fanny passed away in January 1951 at the age of 95. It was not until 2022 that she was recognised by English Heritage for her work, with Blue Plaques being installed at her London home and Middlethorpe. No copies of any of her garden plans survive. She wrote no books, nor kept diaries. Just one interview with her remains from the Women’s Penny Paper in 1890, and if you visit her London gardens, it is only just possible to see the bones of her designs. You really do have to look for Fanny Wilkinson but, when you find her, she proves to have been a remarkable woman.